Have You Heard of James Ross, Composer?

If you haven’t, here is a little introduction and even better, an interview below. 

Links:  James Ross Myspace Page 1 and Page 2

I had a nice conversation with James Ross the other day.  He is a contemporary Amaranth composer out of Brooklyn, N.Y.  A guitarist and music teacher, but unique in the sense that he is far and away from guitar composing-wise the couple years I have been a fan of his and is focused on sounds, sonic art, etc.  Initially, when moving into soundscapes he started out with a work simply titled, “Winds and Strings.” Truly a study of sound waves.  I visit his site often to listen to that work, which is ambience at its best.  I have mentioned to James that the ambience is Beethovenesque to my ear at times.   

Over the last year or so he has followed in that vein and moved into field recording.  “Brick Saw” is a collaboration with Night Germ (a.k.a. Stefan Graham). The work employs the sound of a brick saw, which in turn is twisted and probed sonically in almost every conceivable aspect. 

His latest work is called “Heaven” and he talks about it below. 

I highly recommend purchasing every work of James Ross as they are shining, radiant and luminescent wise tales understood best by centering your senses to let the music move you into the composers’ soundscape.  

Combs:  I really dig your works with sound, the compositions. How would you describe them?

Ross:  Well, I use a lot of sustained tones and repetitions. I just like to display sounds so that a listener can really hear them–study them almost. Sounds are valuable. I don’t like to toss them around like pennies. I guess most of my pieces are attempts to showcase sounds.

Combs:  What got you in to composition?

Ross:  Besides the money? I’ve always been in awe of composers. They are the ones who actually make all that music–bring it into being from nothing. They are the unique ones. There are lots of pianists who play, say, Debussy, and make it sound great. But there was only one Debussy. At any rate, I’ve always wanted to be the one who creates those worlds that players and listeners delve into. But I’m relatively new to composition. Only been at it a few years. I have a lot to learn. Almost everything, really.

Combs:  Who are your major influences.

Ross:  Too many. Fripp, Eno, Glass, Cage, Feldman, John Fahey, La Monte Young, the New York City Transit system …

Combs:  You recently visited China. Has that trip influenced you in any way?

Ross:  I was there to visit my wife’s family. They are mostly in Sichuan province. It was such a beautiful and fascinating place. So sad what has happened there. Our friends and family there are all fine, fortunately, but what a tragedy for so many people.

You can’t help but be affected by a trip to a place like that. So much history. But probably the most immediate influence is coming from a plucked-string instrument called a zhongruan, which I bought while we were there. It has four strings, a two-octave fretboard, a wide, round body, and is usually played with a plectrum. Its origins are ancient–more than 2000 years old. It originally had silk strings, which would have given it a soft, delicate voice, I imagine. But over the centuries the instrument has been modified–“reformed” is the word some Chinese music scholars use, I believe–so now it’s rather guitar-like with metal strings and metal frets. I love the sounds. Kind of primitive, gamey. But penetrating, percussive and, in quiet playing, very soulful and deep. I’ve been doing some practicing and composing for it. The sound is in my ear and it will probably show up in some future pieces.

Combs:  I’ve heard that you ran into someone at a party, a composer, and were speechless. Who was that and what happened?

Ross:  You’re talking about my non-fateful meeting with John Cage. It wasn’t at a party, though. He was giving a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s. (I’m originally from southwestern Pennsylvania.) The talk was just Cage standing in front of the room reading from his book “Silence” in an incredibly even, detached tone of voice. I remember it was a very calming experience. After, people were hanging out talking with him, and I just couldn’t speak. But at the time I was only 18 or 19, and I felt quite intimidated. I was certain I didn’t really have anything intelligent to say or to ask him so I just kept my mouth shut. I’m still not sure what I would ask him if he were around today and I had another chance.

Combs:  Tell us what we can look forward to from you over the coming months.

Ross:  Just finished a long dronal/ambient piece called “Heaven.” It consists of clips of the sound of ringing pot lids that have been transposed to various pitch levels and layered together. The transpositions explore a series of modulations in seven-limit just intonation. Some excerpts are at my MySpace page (myspace. com/jrossdrone). Also, planning to finish a series of pieces I started last year called “Island of the Dead.” It’s more music based on the sounds of the pot lids mentioned above. Only with these pieces, I derived a tuning from the inharmonic tones produced by the lids, and used the tones to compose for other instruments, voices, etc. Includes prepared guitar and drumming on some old milk cans. I plan to release the recordings privately. There are also the zhongruan pieces–I have a couple of those under way. I guess that’s more than enough.


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